Chapter 2. On the Antecedent Probability of the Ecclesiastical Miracles

{101} 4. A FACT is properly called "improbable," only when it has some quality or circumstance attached to it which operates to the disadvantage of evidence adduced in its behalf. We can scarcely avoid forming an opinion for or against any statement which meets us; we feel well-disposed towards some accounts or reports, averse from others, sometimes on no reason whatever beyond our accidental frame of mind at the moment, sometimes because the facts averred flatter or thwart our wishes, coincide or interfere with the view of things familiar to us, please or startle our imagination, or on other grounds equally vague and untrustworthy. Such anticipations about facts are as little blameable as the fancies which spontaneously rise in the mind about a person's stature and appearance before seeing him; and, like such fancies, they are dissipated at once when the real state of the case is in any way ascertained. They {102} are simply notional; and form no presumption in reason, for or against the facts, or the evidence of the facts, to which they relate.

5. An antecedent improbability, then, in certain facts, to be really such, must avail to prejudice the evidence which is offered in their behalf, and must be of a nature to diminish or destroy its force. Thus it is improbable, in the highest degree, that our friend should have done an act of fraud or injustice; and improbable again, but in a slight degree, that our next-door neighbour should have been highly promoted, or that he should have died suddenly. We do not acquiesce in any evidence whatever that comes to hand even for the latter occurrence, and in none but the very best for the former. Again, there is a general improbability attaching to the notion that the members of certain sects or of certain political parties should commit themselves to this or that cast of opinions, or line of conduct; and, on the other hand, though there is no general improbability that individuals of the poorest class should make large fortunes, yet a strong probability may lie against certain given persons of that class in particular.

6. Now it may be asserted that there is no presumption whatever against miracles generally in the ages after the Apostles, though there may be and is a certain antecedent improbability in this or that particular miracle. {103}

There is no presumption against Ecclesiastical Miracles generally, because inspiration has stood the brunt of any such antecedent objection, whatever it be worth, by its own supernatural histories, and in establishing their certainty in fact, has disproved their impossibility in the abstract. If miracles are antecedently improbable, it is either from want of a cause to which they may be referred, or of experience of similar events in other times and places. What neither has been before, nor can be attributed to an existing cause, is not to be expected, or is improbable. But Ecclesiastical Miracles are occurrences not without a parallel; for they follow upon Apostolic Miracles, and they are referable to the Author of the Apostolic as an All-sufficient Cause. Whatever be the regularity and stability of nature, interference with it can be, because it has been; there is One who both has power over His own work, and who before now has not been unwilling to exercise it. In this point of view, then, Ecclesiastical Miracles are more advantageously circumstanced than those of Scripture.

7. What has happened once, may happen again; the force of the presumption against Miracles lies in the opinion entertained of the inviolability of nature, to which the Creator seems to "have given a law which shall not be broken." When once that law is shown to be but general, not necessary, and (if the word may be used) when its prestige is once destroyed, {104} there is nothing to shock the imagination in a miraculous interference twice or thrice, as well as once. What never has yet happened is improbable in a sense quite distinct from that in which a thing is improbable which has before now happened; the improbability of the latter class of facts may be greater or less, it may be very great; but whatever the strength of the improbability, it is different in kind from the improbability attaching to such as admit of being called impossible by those who reject them.

8. It may be urged in reply, that the precedent of Scripture is no special recommendation of Ecclesiastical Miracles; for the abstract argument against miracles, as such, has little or no force, as soon as the mere doctrine of a Creator and Supreme Governor is admitted, and even prior to any reference to inspired history; that there is no question among religious men of the existence of a Cause adequate to the production of miracles anywhere or at any period; the question rather is whether He will work them; whether the Ecclesiastical Miracles themselves, being what and when they were, are probable, not whether there is a general presumption against them all simply as miracles; on the other hand, that while the Scripture Miracles avail little as a precedent for subsequent miracles, as miracles, for no precedent is wanted, they do actually tend to discredit them, as being subsequent, for from the nature of the case irregularities can be {105} but rarely allowed in any system. It is at first sight not to be expected that the Author of nature should interrupt His own harmonious order at all, though He is powerful to do so; and therefore the fact of His having done so once makes it only less probable that He will do so again. Moreover, if any recurrence of miraculous action is to be anticipated, it is the recurrence of a similar action, not a manifestation of power, ever so different from it; whereas the miracles of the ages subsequent to the Apostles are on the whole so very unlike those of which we read in Scripture, in their object, circumstances, nature, and evidence, as even to be disproved by the very contrast. This is what may be objected.

9. Now as far as this representation involves the discussion of the special character and circumstances of the Ecclesiastical Miracles, it will come under consideration in the next Chapter; here we are only engaged with the abstract question, whether the fact that miracles have once occurred, and that under certain circumstances and with certain characteristics, does or does not prejudice a proof when offered, of their having occurred again, and that under other circumstances and with other characteristics.

10. On this point many writers have expressed opinions which it is difficult to justify. Thus Bishop Warburton, in the course of some excellent remarks on the Christian miracles, is led to propose a certain {106} test of true miracles, founded on their professed object, and suggests that this will furnish us with means of drawing the line of supernatural agency in the early Church. "If [the final cause]," he says, "be so important as to make the miracle necessary to the ends of the dispensation, this is all that can be reasonably required to entitle it to our belief;" so far he is vindicating the Apostolic Miracles, and his reasoning is unexceptionable; but he adds in a note, "Here, by the way, let me observe, that what is now said gives that criterion which Dr. Middleton and his opponents, in a late controversy concerning miracles, demanded of one another, and which yet both parties, for some reasons or other, declined to give; namely, some certain mark to enable men to distinguish, for all the purposes of religion, between true and certain miracles, and those which were false or doubtful." [Note 1] He begins by saying that miracles which subserve a certain object deserve our consideration, he ends by saying that those which do not subserve it do not deserve our consideration, and he makes himself the judge whether they subserve it or not.

11. Bishop Douglas, too, after observing that the miracles of the second and third centuries have a character less clearly supernatural and an evidence less cogent than those of the New Testament, and that the fourth and fifth are "ages of credulity and {107} superstition," and the miracles which belong to them are "wild and ridiculous," proceeds to lay down a decisive criterion between true miracles and their counterfeits, and this criterion he considers to be the gift of inspiration in their professed workers. "Though it may be a matter more of curiosity than of use, to endeavour to determine the exact time when miraculous powers were withdrawn from the Church, yet I think that it may be determined with some degree of exactness. The various opinions of learned Protestants, who have extended them at all after the Apostles, show how much they have been at a loss with regard to this, which has been urged by Papists with an air of triumph, as if, Protestants not being able to agree when the age of miracles was closed, this were an argument of its not being closed as yet. If there be anything in this objection, though perhaps there is not, I think I have it in my power to obviate it, by fixing upon a period, beyond which we may be certain that miraculous powers did not subsist." Then he refers to his argument in favour of the New Testament miracles, that "what we know of the attributes of the Deity, and of the usual methods of His government, inclines us to believe that miracles will never be performed by the agency and instrumentality of men, but when these men are set apart and chosen by God to be His ambassadors, as it were, to the world, to deliver some message or to preach some {108} doctrine as a law from heaven; and in this case their being vested with a power of working miracles is the best credential of the divinity of their mission." So far, as Warburton, this author keeps within bounds; but next he proceeds, as Warburton also, to extend his argument from a defence of what is true to a test of what is false. "If we set out with this as a principle, then shall we easily determine when it was that miracles ceased to be performed by Christians; for we shall be led to conclude that the age of Christian miracles must have ceased with the age of Christian inspiration. So long as Heaven thought proper to set apart any particular set of men to be the authorized preachers of the new religion revealed to mankind, so long, may we rest satisfied, miraculous powers were continued. But whenever this purpose was answered, and inspiration ceased to be any longer necessary, by the complete publication of the Gospel, then would the miraculous powers, whose end was to prove the truth of inspiration, be of course withdrawn." [Note 2]

12. Here he determines ŗ priori in the most positive manner the "end" or object of miracles in the designs of Providence. That it is very natural and quite consistent with humility to form antecedent notions of what is likely and what not likely, as in other matters, so as regards the Divine dealings with us, has been implied above; but it is neither reverent {109} nor philosophical in a writer to "think he has it in his power" to dispense with good evidence in behalf of what professes to be a work of God, by means of a summary criterion of his own framing. His very mode of speech, as well as his procedure, reminds us of Hume, who in like manner, when engaged in invalidating the evidence for all miracles whatever, observes that "nothing is so convenient as a decisive argument," (such as Archbishop Tillotson's against the Real Presence,) "which must at least silence the most arrogant bigotry and superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations," and then "flatters himself that he has discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and, consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures."

13. It is observable that in another place Douglas had said, that "though we may be certain that God will never reverse the course of nature but for important ends, (the course of nature being the plan of government laid down by Himself,) Infinite Wisdom may see ends highly worthy of a miraculous interposition, the importance of which may lie hid front our shallow comprehension. Were, therefore, the miracles, about the credibility of which we now dispute, events brought about by invisible agency, though our being able to discover an important end served by a {110} miracle would be no weak additional motive to our believing it; yet our not being able to discover any such end could be no motive to induce us to reject it, if the testimony produced to confirm it be unexceptionable." [Note 3] The author is here speaking of the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, which he believes; and, like a religious man, he feels, contrariwise to Hume, that it is not "convenient," but dangerous, to allow of an antecedent test, which, for what he knows, and before he is aware, may be applied in disproof of one or other instance of those gracious manifestations. But it is far otherwise when he comes to speak of Ecclesiastical Miracles, which he begins with disbelieving without much regard to their evidence, and is engaged, not in examining or confuting, but in burdening with some test or criterion which may avail, in Hume's words, "to silence bigotry and superstition, and to free us from their impertinent solicitations." He acts towards the miracles of the Church, as Hume towards the miracles of Scripture.

14. And surely with less reason than Hume, from a consideration already suggested; because, in being a believer in the miracles of Scripture, he deprives himself of that strong antecedent ground against all miracles whatever, both Scriptural and Ecclesiastical, on which Hume took his stand. Allowing, as he is obliged to allow, that the ecclesiastical miracles are {111} possible, because the Scripture miracles are true, he rejects ecclesiastical miracles as not subserving the object which he arbitrarily assigns for miracles under the Gospel, while he protects the miracles of Scripture by the cautious proviso, that "Infinite Wisdom may see ends" for an interposition, "the importance of which may lie hid from our shallow comprehension." Yet it is a fairer argument against miraculous agency in a particular instance, before it is known in any case to have been employed, that its object is apparently unimportant, than after such agency has once been manifested. What has been introduced for greater ends may, when once introduced, be made subservient to secondary ones. Parallel cases are of daily occurrence in matters of this world; and if it is allowable, as it is generally understood to be, to argue from final causes in behalf of the being of a God—that is, to apply the analogy of a human framer and work to the relation subsisting between the physical world and a Creator—surely it is allowable also to illustrate the course of Divine Providence and Governance by the methods and procedures of human agents. Now, nothing is more common in scientific and social arrangements than that works begun for one purpose should, in the course of operation, be made subservient, as a matter of course, to lesser ones. A mechanical contrivance or a political organization is continued for secondary objects, when the {112} primary has been attained; and thus miracles begun either for Warburton's object or Douglas's may be continued for others, "the importance of which," in the language of the latter, "may lie hid from our shallow comprehension."

15. Hume judges of professedly Divine acts by experience; Bishops Warburton and Douglas by the probable objects which a Divine Agent must pursue. Both parties draw extravagant conclusions, and that unphilosophically; but surely we know much less of the designs and purposes of Divine Providence, on which Warburton and Douglas insist, than we know of that physical course of things on which Hume takes his stand. Facts actually come before us; the All-wise Mind is hidden from us. We have a right to form anticipations about facts; we may not, except very reverently and humbly, attempt to trace, and we dare not prescribe, the rules on which Providence conducts the government of the world. The Apostle warns us, "Who hath known the mind of the Lord? and who hath been His counsellor?" And surely, a fresh or additional object in the course of Providence presents a less startling difficulty to the mind than an interposition in the laws of nature. If we conquer our indisposition towards the news of such an interposition by reflecting on the Sovereignty of the Creator, let us not be religious by halves, let us submit our imaginations to the full idea of that inscrutable {113} Sovereignty, nor presume to confine it within bounds narrower than are prescribed by His own attributes.

16. This, then, is the proper answer to the objection urged against the post-apostolic miracles, on the ground that the first occurrence of miracles does in itself discredit their recurrence, and that the miracles subsequent to those of Scripture differ, in fact, from the Scripture miracles in their objects and circumstances. The ordinary Providence of God is conducted upon a system; and as even the act of creation is now contemplated by some philosophers as possibly subject to law, so it is more probable than not that there is also a law of supernatural manifestations. And thus the occurrence of miracles is rather a presumption for than against their recurrence; such events being not isolated acts, but the indications of the presence of an agency. And again, since every system consists of parts varying in importance and value, so also as regards a dispensation of miracles, "God hath set every one of them in the body as it hath pleased Him;" and even "those members which seem to be more feeble" and less "comely" are "necessary," and are sustained by their fellowship with the more honourable.

17. It may be added that Scripture, as in Mark xvi. 17, 18, certainly does give a prim‚ facie countenance to the idea that miracles are a privilege accorded to true believers, and that where is faith, there will {114} be the manifested signs of its invisible Author. Hence it was the opinion of Grotius [Note 4], who is here quoted from his connection with English Theology, and of Barrow, Dodwell, and others, that miracles are at least to be expected as attendants on the labours of Missionaries. Now this Scripture intimation, whether fainter or stronger, does, as far as it goes, add to the presumption in favour of the miracles of ecclesiastical history, by authoritatively assigning them a place in the scheme of Christianity. But this subject, as well as others touched upon in this Chapter, will more distinctly come into review in those which follow.

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1. Div. Leg. ix. 5.
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2. Pp. 239-241, Edit. 4.
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3. Page 217.
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4. On Mark xvi. 17, Grotius avows his belief in the continuance of a miraculous agency down to this day. He illustrates that text from St. Justin, St. Irenśus, Origen, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, and Lactantius, as regards the power of exorcism, and refers to the acts of Victor of Cilicia in the Martyrology of Ado, and to the history of Sabinus, Bishop of Canusium, in Greg. Turon., for instances of miraculous protection against poison. As to missions, he asserts that the presence of miraculous agency is even a test whether the doctrine preached is Christ's. "Si quis etiam nunc gentibus Christi ignaris, (illis enim proprie miracula inserviunt, 1 Cor. xiv. 22), ita ut ipse annunciari voluit, annunciat, promissionis vim duraturam arbitror. Sunt enim [ametameleta tou theou dora]. Sed nos, cujus rei culpa est in nostra ignavi‚ aut diffidenti‚, id solemus in Deum rejicere." Elsewhere he professes his belief in the miracle wrought upon the Confessors under Hunneric, who spoke after their tongues were cut out; and in the ordeals of hot iron in the middle ages (De Verit. i. 17); and in the miracles wrought at the tombs of the Martyrs. Ibid. iii. 7, fin. Vide also De Antichr. p. 502, col. 2.
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